- Title: Coronavirus stalks cells of Cameroon's crowded prisons
- Date: 9th July 2020
- Summary: FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE (FILE - APRIL 28, 2020) (REUTERS) POLICE IN FRONT OF CENTRAL PRISON ON FIRE AFTER A COVID PATIENT WAS REMOVED EXTERIOR PRISON FIRE FIGHTERS EXTERIOR PRISON WITH SMOKE AND FIRE FIGHTERS
- Embargoed: 23rd July 2020 08:28
- Keywords: Africa prisons COVID-19 congested prison coronavirus
- Location: YAOUNDE, CAMEROON/ FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE/ BANGUI, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC/ MANAKARA, MADAGASCAR
- City: YAOUNDE, CAMEROON/ FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE/ BANGUI, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC/ MANAKARA, MADAGASCAR
- Country: Cameroon
- Topics: Health/Medicine
- Reuters ID: LVA00BCM36SEV
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: On the morning of April 24, Fritz Takang became so breathless he could barely walk across the cramped cell he shared with 60 inmates at the main prison in Cameroon's capital, Yaounde.
That night, he said, he was evacuated with five others to an apartment complex that was being used to quarantine suspected COVID-19 cases.
Correctional facilities worldwide have been fertile ground for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Yaounde Central Prison, where Takang is held, was the worst hit, according to the data.
Behind its mouldy concrete walls, the virus appears to be spreading rapidly through packed, squalid cells, overwhelming its ill-equipped infirmary, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former inmates, four prison officials and two lawyers. Many asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.
More than 31 inmates have died there since April 1, compared with the usual one or two a month, a senior prison official told Reuters. None were tested for COVID-19.
Takang spoke on the phone from the Cameroonian Presbyterian Church Hospital in Yaounde where he was moved on April 25 for two weeks and described the prison cells as rooms of 450 to 600 square metres for around 1,400 inmates. Most inmates sleep on the floor, he said, and some outside in the corridors.
The thought of going back to jail after recovering filled him with dread he said.
"It's horrific. Just the thought of going back to the place where I contracted the virus and I am going to mix up with people. It's horrific," Takang said.
A video report from Amnesty International published in 2018 on the excessive use of pre-trial detention in Madagascar reveals the scale of overcrowding in detention facilities.
A guard claps his hands every hour to get the prisoners, who are lying on the ground like sardines in a can, to turn around because it is too painful to sleep in the same position.
World Prison Brief, a database compiled by the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR) at Birkbeck, University of London said there were just under 28,000 inmates in Madagascar's prisons in 2019 with a capacity for less than half or 10,600.
The human rights organisation last May urged African governments to protect detainees from COVID-19 in overcrowded prisons warning poor conditions in detention centres increased the risk of jails becoming epicentres of the pandemic "unless urgent action is taken"
"According to the National commission on human rights and freedoms, the occupancy rate was high in many prisons in Cameroon, reaching 432 % in ''Kondengui'' (Yaounde Central Prison), 729% in Bertoua prison (East), 481% in Sangmelima (South) and 567% in Kumba Main Prison (South-West)," the Amnesty report said.
The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) has already delivered COVID-19 kits to Bangui's central prison to try and minimise the spread of the virus.
Africa's more than 1-million prison population is especially vulnerable because of overcrowding, malnutrition and limited healthcare, health experts say. But minimal testing and spotty reporting have frustrated efforts to track and contain its spread - both behind bars and in the community.
Authorities in Togo, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa and Kenya have reported outbreaks in their prisons.
Cameroon's government has not publicly acknowledged infections inside its correctional facilities. But hundreds of cases were recorded among inmates released from five prisons dotted across Cameroon's central region in April, according to previously unpublished government data seen by Reuters.
The prison infirmary where Takang and other COVID-19 patients from the Yaounde prison were treated is made up of a dozen metal beds with thin mattresses, overseen by one doctor and a few nurses. It was quickly overwhelmed.
By mid-April, patients lay three to a bed, said three inmates treated there. Patients bought medication from outside the prison - if they could afford it.
Hours after arriving at the hospital with other patients from Yaounde prison Takang, a pastor, said he heard a fellow inmate in distress in a neighbouring room. With no doctors present, he said, he watched him die, helpless.
"I tried to say hello, I tried to give him a thumbs up. No sign. And the only thing I could do is to say a prayer, as a preacher, to say a prayer that God should relieve him of the pain." Takang, said.
When inmates die their family has 24 hours to collect the body, a senior official said, no small task in a country the size of Spain with threadbare transport links.
Of the 31 who died in April and May, the official said, only four were collected. The rest were taken away by authorities for burial.
Witnessing the inmate's death has changed Takang, who other inmates said is usually quick with a Bible verse and a smile, and often breaks up prison fights. Now, he prefers to keep to himself.
Takang is a vocal supporter of Cameroon's Anglophone separatist movement and has been confined in Yaounde's central prison for over a year on charges of sponsoring terrorism, which he denies.
"I am sure a thousand people are infected," he said about the prison from his isolation bed at the hospital. "You cannot leave your room without passing a hundred people. It is a horror."
In late April and early May, authorities disinfected cells in Yaounde Central prison and stopped prison visits, staff and inmates said.
Inmates, prison staff and their families were given the anti-malarial drug chloroquine, although there is no firm evidence to show it is effective against COVID-19.
Disposable masks and buckets of water and soap were placed in cell blocks so inmates could wash their hands.
But overcrowding makes social distancing impossible, some inmates and guards said. In some quarters, hundreds of men share one pit latrine. Dozens are crowded into cells of no more than 25 square meters.
The inmate population exceeds prison capacity in 42 of the 47 African countries and territories where data is available, according to the World Prison Brief. In Europe, prisons are overfull in 17 of 57 countries and territories.
A prison riot broke out in Freetown's central prison, Sierra Leone, on April 28.
Amnesty International West and Central Africa Deputy Director, Marta Colomer, said it was because inmates were alarmed about their first case of COVID-19. Conditions are cramped and after the prison authorities restricted visits to stop the spread of the virus, prisoners worried they would not get enough food.
The Minister of Information Mohamed Rahman Swaray said on the day of the riot that the authorities had already decongested the prisons by releasing around 235 inmates across the country.
The Freetown correctional centre, designed to hold 324 inmates, held over 2,000 in 2019, according to a U.S. State Department human rights report that described conditions in Sierra Leone's prison system as harsh and life-threatening.
In Yaounde Central prison more inmates have died since the 31 in April and May, the official said, but he has stopped counting.
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